Sunday, November 16, 2008

Chinese Green Legislation, Part 1: Progress and Problems

China needs more biting green legislation. China's Environmental Protection Law—its “Green constitution” was first enacted in 1979 and was revised in 1989. Three decades after this law was first introduced, China is the world’s fourth largest economy and despite a series of “Green storms” (harsh crackdown campaigns against polluters and a “green credit” system to deny polluting industries access to bank loans), Chinese environmentalists appear to have struck a glass ceiling.

According to an article in World Watch, "Since 1979, China’s national legislature has enacted 26 laws focusing on or related to environmental protection. Of these, 11 have been adopted in the past seven years, since 2000. Backed by more than 2,000 regulations and decrees, these laws have established a legal framework for China’s green measures aimed at sustainable development. [But] laws without teeth can hardly bite." The result is that economic growth often trumps environmental protection.

"It is typically easier for [Chinese industry] to pay the fine than to take steps to adopt effective pollution control measures, which can cost dozens of times more than the simple penalty. [Further,] the agencies responsible for environmental protection are typically part of local government bodies, they lack the independence and authority to perform their duties. This relationship, along with the lack of oversight on law enforcement," translate to rampant environmental violations.

According to a July report from the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), 110 out of 126 (more than 87%) were approved for construction without the required environmental impact assessment (EIA). "These findings prompted SEPA to suspend approval of EIAs on all industrial projects—with the exception of projects involving pollution control and recycling and reuse—in the basins of four major rivers where environmental violations are rampant: the Hai, Huai, and Yellow Rivers and the Anhui section of the Yangtze."

To further complicate matters, China’s environmental legislation and environmental administrative power are focused on pollution prevention. "Thus, the protection of natural resources is left in the hands of other administrative departments, which also typically manage specific economic sectors whose primary mission is to exploit resources. In the case of water resources, the Ministry of Water Resources is responsible for both the protection of China’s rivers as well the exploitation of its water resources, such as hydropower projects."

Perhaps most problematic is the fact that "current Environmental Protection Law lists economic growth and environmental protection in parallel, effectively weakening the law’s power as a uniquely environment law and causing ambiguity when economic growth and environmental protection are in conflict. Even worse, economic growth is in practice always prioritized over environmental protection, despite the verbal principle of balance."

Despite these problems, the Chinese understand they have a vested interest in revising their Green constitution and as we shall explore in the next post, there are viable solutions.

Next: Chinese Green Legislation, Part 2: Solutions and Strategies / Part 3: The New Regulations

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